The Great Wall (2016)
★★ / ★★★★
With no intention whatsoever to deliver historical accuracy, “The Great Wall,” directed by Yimou Zhang, manages to entertain on the level of superficial action-fantasy. Clearly, the target audience is one who craves chases and battles right from the get-go with minimal exposition. For this type of film, it is the correct decision to make the length relatively short, the pacing fast, and the special and visual effects eye-catching enough for us to want to keep looking at it. Although not a strong action picture, it is interesting enough, I think, to become a favorite on late-night cable networks.
It is apparent that the filmmakers wish to have fun with the material. For instance, there are numerous amusing banters between the two non-Chinese men, William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal), making their way through ancient China in search of black powder, perceived to be the next generation of weaponry in war. Even a potential romance between William and one of the Nameless Order commanders, Lin Mae (Jing Tian), protector of The Great Wall, is dealt with a certain level of silliness.
Movies of this type tend to take the material so seriously that usually they end up suffocating the audiences with their seemingly deep aspirations. Worse, they inspire us to roll our eyes both in disbelief and frustration. Here, I got the impression that the filmmakers, especially the writers, are aware of the painful contrivances so they, instead, attempt to amplify the more important elements in an action picture.
There is creativity in a handful of battle scenes. Particularly impressive is the first encounter against the so-called Tao Tei, massive lizard-like creatures with shark-like teeth and eyes adjacent to their forelimbs. According to the myth, a meteor crashed on a nearby mountain two thousand years prior and these creatures are to remind humanity of their greed. It is most exciting to observe the defenders of the wall taking position, getting their armaments ready, and observing the leaders’ faces anticipate a gory battle. Despite the fact that the monsters look computerized from a bird’s-eye view, there are instances when we get a chance to look closely at the creature and appreciate the finer details.
A shortcoming is a lack of characterization, even a superficial one, of the commanding officers. Sure, we get to learn most about Lin Mae of the Crane Troop. But also of potential interest are commanders of the Tiger Troop (Eddie Peng), Eagle Troop (Gengxin Lin), Deer Troop (Xuan Huang), and Bear Troop/General of the Nameless Order (Hanyu Zhang)—each specializing in an area of battle. Their fates would have had a stronger impact if we had gotten a chance to get to know them on a deeper level. One of the most beautiful moments of the film involves a funeral. But it fails to grab us emotionally.
“The Great Wall” is likely to be forgotten a few minutes after it is over, but this does not mean it doesn’t have strengths. As an on-the-spot experience, it engages enough to keep us wondering what might happen next—even while on our way to acquire the laundry.